Internationally renowned chef Susur Lee dishes on how his family eats at home.
Jet will say he wants a doughnut, says Brenda Bent, describing life at home with husband Susur Lee and their three boys. Our family doesn’t eat doughnuts but he gets one anyway. If they want to eat at McDonald’s, we’ll go for breakfast. I can drive through and they can eat it in the car. We don’t sit down and have a meal. It’s car food.
Despite the odd indulgence, the family’s diet is hardly Homer Simpson fare. On a rainy Saturday at their comfortable Toronto home, the Lees are just getting into gear by noon. Nobody’s making coffee or reaching for a box of sugarcoated flakes. A sleepy Susur makes breakfast from a large bowl of Caribbean custard apples, the remnant of a case from his restaurants, methodically splitting the prickly fruit and eating them. Teenage sons Kai and Levi drift into the kitchen to concoct wholesome smoothies from fresh berries and yoghurt. The youngest, nine-year-old Jet, bounces in and out, refueling on orange juice.
When I cook at home, its very different than in the restaurant. We eat very simply, says Susur, rated as one of the top ten chefs in the world by Food and Wine magazine in 2005. A lot of people assume that a chef would cook like they do professionally. In the restaurant, its like people come into my Zen I want to give them an experience. But thats not what I’m like at home.
Susur Lee is a busy man. With two restaurants to run, Susur and the more casual Lee, located side-by-side on King Street West, in Toronto, he works long hours. His imaginative style, drawn from classical European and Chinese cooking, has earned him critical acclaim plus television appearances on The Iron Chef and East Meets West. His elegant cookbook, Susur: A Culinary Life combines recipes and memoir with the rich narrative of co-writer Jacob Richler on the roots of North American fusion. Susur is clearly passionate about what he does, but his sons are what ignite him.
A Different Style
Were not necessarily a conventional family, says Susur. I wasn’t around to read them bedtime stories or put them to bed at night. Because of my profession with its long hours, my wife does a lot with the kids. But when I spend time with them, I really spend time with them.
The model of a normal family is not what it used to be, says Brenda, fretting over stray jackets, the family’s late unreturned videos and Susur’s pants at the bottom of the stairs where he dropped them on his way up to bed the previous night. We’re dysfunctional.
This is the way we live, Susur adds, a little defensive of how he juggles parenting with the demands of his work. Sometimes people must find it really strange and wonder how we can have a good family life. We don’t even eat together most of the time. But just because people eat together doesn’t mean they’re together.
Brenda is the keeper of the family schedule, much of it revolving around the competitive tennis that all three boys play at an advanced level. Some of the family trips are for the boys tennis matches, such as a recent holiday to Spain. At home, Brenda does all of the shopping and prepares most of the meals. Susur enjoys family cooking whenever he has the time, often combining culinary efforts with his wife. Brenda may start a dish and Susur finish it. Or they’ll have a little fusion on the table with Brenda cooking Italian food and Susur adding a Chinese dish for a big dinner together.
One of Susur’s favourite things to cook for his boys when they were very young was a simple chicken dish called Daddy’s Best Chicken. I used to make that a lot because they always loved it. One of the secret ingredients is catsup, because the kids like it. Kids like anything if you put catsup in it.
The family’s favourites are quite diverse. Susur and Levi, the oldest, love steamed fish while no one else will touch it. But father and sons don’t always agree. Middle son Kai won’t drink water, the most essential thing on earth according to Susur, but Kai maintains it has no flavour for him. All the boys like polenta with Brenda’s homemade tomato sauce or canned beans with a little ham on the side.
Canned beans thats what they get from me and they love it, says Brenda. She will cater to individual tastes, often making more than one dish, especially for the youngest. Jet doesn’t like onions for example.
All three boys say Chinese or Korean food is their favourite. The kids have grown up exposed to a lot of Asian flavours from the time they were very, very young, Susur explains. We don’t go to fancy French restaurants. We just go to eat Chinese or Korean food. They’ve always eaten a great variety of things.
The Lees frequently dine out, usually choosing places where the food preparation is fairly elaborate such as Korean, or for sushi because its difficult to keep the fresh fish at home.
We don’t go out to eat steak, pizza or pasta because I can make those things better at home and its more relaxing, Brenda says. Sometimes its harder just to try and get everybody corralled.
Daddy’s Best Chicken
1. Cut fresh, boneless chicken into bite-sized pieces.
2. Marinate with some fresh ginger and Chinese five-spice.
3. Dust the chicken pieces with a little corn starch and pan fry till crispy.
4. Put in a little soy sauce, 1/4 cup chicken stock and little bit of catsup.
Best served with rice.
“I like to make it a very saucy dish.”, Susur Lee.
Brenda believes that picky eaters are created. While the Lee kids are introduced to a lot of different foods, they are never forced to eat anything they don’t like. Jet has been the most reluctant to taste new things but lately hes more adventurous, trying bean sprouts and a lot of Asian vegetables. Brenda claims that since hes third, hes been the least well fed. The first son got fresh ground fish at nine months and didn’t have sugar until he was two. Wed travel all over the world with him carrying goats milk. We were insane right? But Jet was eating popsicles at two months in case he was teething.
Susur says that Levi is most like him with a very high quality of taste. Once when we were in Boston, Levi tried oysters for the first time, Susur recalls. Then he came to me in the middle of the night and said, Dad, I cant stop thinking about that oyster I had. He was driving me crazy about that raw oyster and he was only 13. Sometimes on a Sunday, hell say lets go for oysters. Often thats the only thing that gets us all together. Well go out and eat some salted chicken or oysters. For the little one, Jet, its Korean food.
Finding Family Time
Susur finds time whenever he can to be with the boys. They know I spend a lot of time away because I love what I do. But when were together, I focus on them, says Susur. Our family time is special. They get to enjoy the fun part of what I do the travelling all over the world and learning about other cultures. We usually take a family trip twice a year. We have a different way of family being together because I don’t have a nine-to-five job. What I bring to the table is how to be a good person, how to be smart and become independent.
Kai is the one who likes to cook. Susur says hes the most inventive in the kitchen, however Kai hasn’t decided what he wants to do. Hes currently more into music, drama and tennis. Sometimes hell make a banana flamb or experiment and let me taste it, Susur says, very much the proud father. Kai has also composed music to play in his dads restaurants. Its very sophisticated. I understand how to take things apart with food with taste, timing and visually, with colour Kais music is very much like that.
Susur didn’t discover his own vocation right away. At the beginning, cooking was just a job; his goal was to make money. Later he discovered the culture in the kitchen that became his real passion.
Asked if he wants any of his sons to become a chef, he answers, Its up
to them. Its more important that they love what they do. I hope they
find that one thing they’re crazy about. When they’re young, you should
expose them to a lot. But you can only introduce them to things. I’m
still curious about new things I want to do.
trust are big issues for Susur as a father. Because theres such a strong
connection between them, he says he trusts his sons. No matter what
happens or how bad an issue may be, they can still talk about it. The
family is physically close too. Communal sleeping is as natural to the
Lees as sitting next to each other.
My kids still invite me to sleep in the same bed, except for the little one, declares Susur. He says I snore.
Inside Susur Lee’s Fridge
Lees have three commercial fridges built in under the kitchen
counters. Inside you’ll find lots of yoghurt (for the boy’s favourite
smoothies), fresh field berries, apples, oranges, bananas, limes,
brocoli, chillies, green onions, celery, bok choy, carrots, milk, orange
juice, Parmesan cheese (Brenda’s favourite), organic meats – chicken,
beef, bacon, fresh fish, olives, Dijon, catsup and a wall of Asian
condiments. Breaded fish sticks!